LeBron James has a new pick-and-roll combo we should all fear

Jun 16, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates with guard Kyrie Irving (2) in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland won 115-101. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates with guard Kyrie Irving (2) in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland won 115-101. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

Pick-and-rolls between Stephen Curry and Draymond Green took the NBA by storm last season because of its versatility. With Curry’s ability to pull-up from ranges we’ve never seen before and score effortlessly against big men on switches, teams had to focus all of their attention on him whenever the ball was in his hands. Green only made the play more complicated to defend by popping to the perimeter for open 3s and finding spot-up shooters on the roll when teams tried trapping as the solution.

In theory, the duo that has the best shot at creating similar looks in those situations is Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Beyond being an excellent scorer and passer in just about every facet of the game, James ranked in the 95.4 percentile as the roll-man last season with 1.36 points per possession. Since Irving ranked in the 80.3 percentile with 0.89 points per pick-and-roll possession as the ball handler, you’d expect James to become the scariest power forward in the NBA when he’s used like Green.

However, what makes the Irving and James tandem truly unique is James is the only forward capable of doing what makes Green special and more. For example, James scored 21.6 percent of his points as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls last season compared to only 5.0 percent by Green. James even finished the year rubbing shoulders with Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker in pick-and-roll efficiency. He is the only forward other than Green to post assist numbers akin to point guards, too, which gives head coach Tyronn Lue a tremendous amount of flexibility on offense when looking to create easy baskets for the Cavaliers.

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One of the ways the Cavaliers make the most of James’ versatility is by flipping how the Warriors run their pick-and-roll between Curry and Green with Irving setting the screen on James. Other than it involving a point guard being used as a screener for a forward, what’s unique about these pick-and-rolls is they don’t have to be bang-bang plays to work. On this possession, you’ll see James slowly dribble away from Irving instead of immediately turning the corner and attacking the basket like most ball handlers would. The reason why is simple: James is monitoring his defender, Jeff Green, to see how he reacts because he has a brief window to get back in front of him.

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It doesn’t necessarily matter that teams go under every screen James is involved in to exploit the only weakness in his game, either. Once the Orlando Magic have no choice but to switch Elfrid Payton onto him, James quickly gives the ball up to Kevin Love on the opposite wing and establishes himself on the block for an isolation. James averaged 0.89 points per post-up possession last season — good for the 67.7 percentile — so a point guard standing at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds like Payton has little chance of slowing him down.

The result is an easy basket for James and the Cavaliers.

Here’s another example of how it works. This time James attacks aggressively following Irving’s screen to force an immediate switch so he can get the less athletic Avery Bradley on him. James doesn’t end the possession with points to show for it, but the set does its job — he easily backs Bradley down from the 3-point line to the restricted area and gets a look he makes more often than not.

The pick-and-roll can obviously lead to a spot-up opportunity for Irving on the pop, but it’s more likely to set him up with an isolation against someone who isn’t as quick and nimble as his original defender. Like James taking a smaller defender to the post, Irving going 1-on-1 against anyone is tough to slow down with him averaging 0.95 points per isolation possession (80.1 percentile) last season. He can get it done from the perimeter and midrange — Irving posted a 46.5 effective field goal percentage on pull-ups in 2015-16, which was a similar rate to Damian Lillard, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard — and he’s amongst the league’s best at getting to the basket for nifty finishes around the rim.

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In the following video, watch Irving turn down a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to take Carmelo Anthony off the dribble. What may look like a difficult move for most is just another shot for Irving as he converted over 50 percent of his step back jumpers last season. Anthony doesn’t do a bad job of matching up with him and contesting his shot, but it still doesn’t change the result.

Further complicating matters is that brief window of whether or not the defense should switch puts them in a vulnerable situation for reasons other than James and Irving. If he doesn’t turn the corner quickly, opponents have to at least respect James because he can put his head down and attack the basket with a full head of steam. When he does take that approach, it usually brings a third defender into the picture if they have any intention of slowing him down.

Notice how Justin Holiday is forced to slide over to the elbow to prevent James from getting to the basket with the New York Knicks opting to have Kristaps Porzingis fight under the screen rather than switching outright. That allows J.R. Smith to do what he does best once James sucks the defense in by spotting-up for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer in rhythm.

We saw some of this action from the Cavaliers when they made their comeback in the NBA Finals. While far from a slouch on defense, Curry was exposed by the Cavs’ involving him in a number of pick-and-rolls with other guards and forwards. When they got the matchup they wanted, with him either having to guard Irving or James 1-on-1, they immediately attacked him in an effort to wear him down and bait him into picking up fouls.

The Cavaliers are using it slightly differently this regular season, but the idea is still the same. Not only is it a way to create mismatches and make teams think twice about switching, it helps them maximize all of the talent they have on the floor by allowing James to play the role of a facilitator, Irving to be a pure scorer and letting everyone else hang out around the perimeter for spacing.

Based on the simplicity of the set and how many quality options the Cavaliers can generate from it, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them use it with greater frequency as the season progresses. Perhaps even to the point where it becomes this season’s version of the Curry-Green pick-and-roll that teams couldn’t stop before injuries ran its course.